A Conversation with Anne Waldman, 1989-1990
Note: This is an rough, unedited version of an interview that was conducted over the winter of 1989/1990, and was printed in a different form in Disembodied Poetics (1995) and has recently been republished as the title piece of Anne Waldman’s Vow To Poetry (2001).
Randy Roark: Can you remember deciding to be a poet? Was it a decision?
Anne Waldman: I wrote from an early age. It was a human, natural circumstance. Later it was necessary to assert the position. It was also a way of life — marginal, subterranean — maybe there was a decision there — that I’d never “sell out.” I took a vow at the famous Olson reading-debacle at Berkeley in 1965 to never give up on poetry or on the community — to serve as a votary to this high and rebellious art.
RR: I have a whole bunch of questions about how to begin. Like, what was your scholastic preparation for becoming a poet? Did your parents encourage you? Did your teachers, contemporaries? Anyone in particular as a mentor? Anyone discourage you? Who were the first poets you met and what was their influence on you?
AW: My parents were extraordinarily encouraging from a tender age. They were both readers and writers. I grew up among books, many of them poetry. I had some inspiring English teachers — Jon Bech Shank in particular in Junior High — a poet himself who was an afficianado of Wallace Stevens’s work and used to read him to us out loud. With a passion. Tremendous gratitude to my best friend in High School — Jonathan Cott — the critic, poet, essayist — who shared my desire “to be a poet” — who read my early work — who turned me onto Rilke and others. In college both Howard Nemerov and novelist Bernard Malamud were acutely encouraging. They were professional role models in some sense. But as a female I always felt I could only absorb some of their story. Ted Berrigan, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, other contemporaries were important allies. There’s interesting history in those “mentor” friendships. But I always felt equal to their challenge.
RR: Can you remember much of your first readings?
AW: I remember an early (second reading?) at the St. Marks Church In-the-Bowery parish hall circa 1966/1967. I was nervous. I was seated at a wooden table. I wore a yellow and blue striped dress and my head was bent over my “works,” hair probably in my face. I remember hearing my young woman — more like a girl — voice and thinking “This isn’t the real voice.” The real voice was deep inside in my hara — and it was a deeper, more seasoned and musical voice — an ageless voice. I realized I would eventually have to find the words to match it — the words would have to grow up to the voice and the wisdom of that voice. This is maybe my life’s work. It’s not that I have to “find my voice” — it’s already there waiting for me.
RR: That reminds me of Allen Ginsberg’s story about hearing what he thought was Blake’s voice and decades later realizing it was actually his own mature reading voice.
AW: I became confident as I continued to read and “perform” more and more. And I felt in a way once I was speaking the words and making these sounds they no longer were mine. My body was a receptacle. My voice was everywoman’s cri de coeur. I’ve always been on the track of the wizened hag’s voice, the tough tongue of the crone free of vanity and conditioning. She’s terrifying, liberating at the same instant. She’s exhausted her hope and fear.
RR: I imagine that in 1967 there wasn’t much of a context for the kind of poetry this voice of yours needed in order to express itself.
AW: It was a smaller more sedate scene in the beginning, not that poets weren’t outrageous in how they presented themselves at times, but there’s always been the “boring” stigma attached to the poetry reading as event. The self-absorbed poet who dully mumbles obscure musings way beyond the appropriate time frame ¼ much of that’s changed for the better. I always like the monotony of a John Ashbey reading, but he’s a brilliant poet, after all. He doesn’t need to strain. When I read at a festival in India-in Bhopal, in fact, 1985-I was the only woman and one of two Americans-the Indian poets all asked, Is this the fashion? Is this what poets are doing in America? Is this acceptable? They had never seen a woman so “out there.” I summoned the Hindu tantric deities as I sang the chant poem “Skin, Meat, Bones.” (“The jackals came/this was in India/to collect the meat of my father’s forefingers.”) I sounded the hag. I felt on “home” soil. India is a frequent grown for dreams, musings, the “other” landscape in my life and work. An old scarecrow mumbling mantras over desiccated corpses is one past-life image that comes ups. Very glamorous.
RR: Charles Bukowski said he was glad he began publishing late, that poets who receive too much recognition early in their life are encouraged to become “writers” rather than real people. How did early recognition affect your life?
AW: In a positive way. I was encouraged, inspired by an early response to my work. The young work seems distant now, insubstantially naive, yet I learned a great deal publishing early and I feel my poet’s lifestream has moved consistently, gathering momentum, since it was in my “blood” then and now. The making of it is always double-edged, painful. But the interest of others is a great boon. I’m grateful. It was harder for women getting started then.
RR: Who were the first poets you met and what was their influence on you?
AW: Howard Nemerov was a teacher of mine at Bennington College. I learned something about discipline from him — a love of Blake and Yeats — and something about crazy mind. He didn’t have a lot of pretenses — he was very direct in fact. Sometimes outrageous. Frank O’Hara had that directness as well and much more exuberance. His work was most interesting to me for its personae. The consciousness was more alive or something. When I first saw Olson at Berkeley in 1965 I was overwhelmed. He was dancing and suffering at the same time. The general influence from these poets was “I’m just as crazy as they are. I can do this too!” Allen, of course, gave me tremendous encouragement by his example — his expansiveness and compassion. Meeting the poets always plunged me deeper into their work. I first met Diane di Prima, I think, when I was just out of high school — in the Albert Hotel in New York. I was impressed that she managed a household — an exotic one at that — with babies. It was inspiring to see her commitment as an artist.
RR: Can you list and discuss the history of your work with various artists and contemporaries? Is there any idea of you co-creating in a community of artists? Is this something new? Can you co-create as well with artists who are long dead? Do you feel yourself as part of a long tradition of artists who are in a sense co-existent despite their deaths?
AW: There have been so many important collaborations in my life with other poets, visual artists, dancers. Currently I’ve just completed a long poem with Susan Noel (an early summer student of mine at Naropa) entitled “Speak Gently In Her Bardo,” in memoriam to a friend of ours who died in 1987. The friend, Judy Gallion, is very much a part of the poem as well. I recently completed Triptych: Madonnas and Poets with artist Red Grooms which includes portraits of Kerouac and his mother, W.C. Williams and his mother, and Marianne Moore and hers in Italian Madonna and babe styles. I wrote the “Legends” which appear in Gothic gold lettering. It’s poignant, hilarious, really beautiful — and exquisitely carved. I enjoy Red’s work — the wit of it — it was certainly an honor to work with him. “Her Story” a lavishly boxed item with poems and lithographs by Elizabeth Murray was recently published by Universal Arts Edition Ltd. Over the years I’ve worked with artists Joe Brainard and George Schneeman and Yvonne Jacquetti, Susan Hall (the Kulchur book Invention), with writers Ted Berrigan, Reed Bye, Eileen Myles, Denyse King, Bernadette Mayer. The work at St. Marks Poetry Project was community-based and inspired. I’ve co-edited publications with Lewis Warsh, Reed Bye, Ron Padgett and am now working on a new poetics anthology from Naropa with my Assistant Director Andrew Schelling. This interview we’re doing is a collaboration, no?
I’ve worked with dancers Douglas Dunn, Yoshiko Chuma, Lisa Kraus, Helen Pelton, Marni Grant. I’ve worked with composer musician Steven Taylor, Elliot Greenspan. I feel that Allen Ginsberg and I have an ongoing collaboration beyond our lifetimes. I am inspired by Sappho’s existence as a writer. Dante (I steal some of his lines), others. Translation is a kind of collaboration. I’m working with nun’s songs from the Pali Canon, circa 80 B.C.
RR: In addition to that I know that you direct the Poetics Department at Naropa Institute. T.S. Eliot thought that having to work for a living — and I imagine a schedule like yours — forced him to concentrate harder during the time he had to write. He found that being otherwise occupied didn’t stop his thinking about what he wanted to say and that the increased ratio of thought to writing prevented him from writing too much or thinking too much on paper.
AW: I believe W.C. Williams felt similarly. He spoke of the “tense state” in which the best work occurs, and he said it might be when you’re most “fatigued” — presumably after a hard day’s work — visiting sick folk and delivering babies. I know that tension — it’s really an altered state — very exciting. And it doesn’t, it’s true, have a lot to do with “thinking.” It’s the direct connection to the poem.
RR: Yet Pound felt that an epic was no longer possible because distractions had intensified, outside stimulation had intensified and our powers of concentration had weakened from a kind of fatigue. Are our abilities to concentrate approaching the vanishing point? Is this a negative thing?
AW: Perhaps we have to work harder to concentrate. I have been working on an “epic” for five years which I am totally committed to. Therefore I disagree from a personal standpoint. But, yes, there are too many distractions — particularly, I would say, those manifesting the materialism of our world, which is distracting and disheartening, even when you don’t buy into it. T.V. is a good example. Charles Olson, another poet who worked on epic most of his life, ranted against T.V. It’s negative unless that mind power is utilized in an enlightened manner. It seems to be getting darker in our world.
RR: Well, it seems that in times of certainty, such as the European Middle Ages, seem to produce great works of art, like cathedrals, symphonies and epics, because they believed they’d had “Truth” revealed to them. In other times, the search and bickering over “Truth” consumes a great deal of energy. If these times are truly getting darker, how does this affect you as an artist?
AW: The Truth is always available even in an age of uncertainty. Truth is unconditional. But we, as a culture, don’t seem to be looking for it at the present time. There is an inordinate amount of deception in our so-called “democracy,” for example. It’s a myth, in fact. The root of so much suffering is “ego” which manifests as a lack of compassion. Our government is cruel. Yet I find solace, joy, insight, great humor in the generosity of the work by many contemporary writers. Maybe these are not great “monuments” like those of the Middle Ages, but they are sustaining. I feel I write against the darkness, “straining against particles of light against a great darkness,” Keats wrote. Also I frequently return to great texts of the recent and not so recent past — Sappho, Dante. They’re still relevant. Olson, Duncan, O’Hara, Schuyler.
RR: There’s a speech in The Third Man where the character played by Orson Welles recalls the turbulent history of Renaissance Italy — war, plague and the Borgia’s — producing Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and compares it with Switzerland’s hundred years of peace, wealth and brotherhood which produced the cuckoo clock. What about this implied correlation of strife with the creation of great works of art, and of complacency with the reverse?
AW: It has some substance. I always felt like a rebel. There are dark times. I strive to make sense of them in my work. It’s not an easy time, fighting the lords of materialism. I don’t know many complacent poets — it seems a contradiction.
RR: I’ve spent an incredible amount of time trying to determine where words come from — the words of our thoughts, the words that appear in our mouths during conversation. Do you know what I’m looking for?
AW: You’re looking for the point — synapse? — perhaps where the magic occurs and how it gets translated. Even after analysis, speech remains a mystery. Words are sacred from some point of view. They emerge — when they aren’t purely discursive — out of luminosity I believe. They are particles of light. They also come out of silence, if there is such a thing. We are communicating through out whole body as well, like illusory angels. Burroughs calls the word a “killer virus.” It has that power as well. Look at the language used in weaponry. “Mantra” means “mind protection.”
RR: Do you think in words? Do you think in associations or in chains of concepts? Do you think in musical phrases?
AW: Yes, I think in words, associations and musical phrases. All of the above. In “Fast Speaking Woman” there are obvious sound and associational moves.
RR: So where do these words come from as you’re writing — from the scene, from the music (form) of the poem, from your mind, from looking at the outside world, outer space, god, etc.?
AW: All of the above! Every experience is a rune waiting to be unearthed, unlocked, revealed to its attendant music of language. Objects suggest words — quotidian reality provides language all the time — along with the visions of hag-dieties wrapped in tigerskins.
RR: The Greeks believed that poetry came from the muses — in fact, that one must empty their head before the muses could appear. Bob Dylan said that the songs he’s written were “in the air” and came through him, perhaps, but always existed and he just happened to be the one who wrote them down. Do you write your poems?
AW: My “you” is just a conglomeration of tendencies. Some of those tendencies manifest in an articulate and refined poetic language, if you will. But I also feel the distinct meeting of my consciousness with a confirmation from the sun, the moon, stars who are my allies all. Muse is an energy. It is the reciprocation of the phenomenal world, as well as the body of light or enjoyment — the Sambhogakaja we say in Buddhism — that responds to the energy we put forth. My poems invite participation of that larger energy or connection. The Muse plugs you in. It’s that direct. Electricity. It’s always available, batteries not needed, but you have you see, magic keys or access to the illusory batteries which are needed and available. When you are genuinely ready and alert. Who’s to say how or when or why this occurs. It’s the reciprocity with “bigger mind.” And it can involve other people. I get that hit-don’t you too? In the poetry one loves.
RR: Actually, I kind of distrust poetry as a medium for truth. When Allen Ginsberg writes about politics or Buddhism, and his understanding changes as he does. I think everything unconsciously becomes our mirror. I tend to sift poems for the person there. The philosophy or otherworldliness I skip over. It was Catullus who thought that the poet was responsible for the poem. And that everything which occurred to the poet — even the most mundane facts of the poet’s life — what he had for breakfast, his petty spites, disagreements and quarrels, the weather — was transformed by the poet into art, the way Midas turned common objects into gold. Ted Berrigan comes to mind as a modern example. Are these two ideas — the inspired and the created — oppositional?
AW: No, these ideas are not opposing. Of course I’m responsible for what I put down. I’m not simply a “channel.” Those facts — the donuts, pepsi colas, peeves — are deities, muses, as well — they speak to me. Things are “symbols of themselves.” “No ideas but in things,” etc. Art belongs, needs to be part of ordinary, quotidian, daily common life. It’s got to reflect the truth of the relative reality as well as its vision, desire, aspiration. Art is ugly from some point of view when it’s shocking, uncompromising. It’s also beautiful for these same reasons.
RR: In the Walt Whitman program of the PBS series “Voices and Visions” they talked about the difference between “blind” poets and “visionary” poets. Blind poets would be those who, like Poe, create out of their imagination or their unconscious. Whitman would be a “visionary” poet because he wrote poems of a particular time and a place that depends so heavily on the eye. Do you see yourself as a “blind poet” or a “visionary” poet?
AW: My work probably fits into the “visionary” category more readily, although much of the writing arises out of an oral yearning and attraction. I hear words before I “see” them, if you know what I mean. I “mouth” them before I see them. But imagination — the words appearing out of dreams, out of fantasy and out of imagined hells — also plays a part. Cut-up and certain experimental methods are interesting in light of this question. You can get a “phantasmic” construction butchering text, re-arranging phrases. Is this “blind” work?
RR: Well, John Ruskin, the great late 19th-century art critic, was disgusted by the state of art in his age because paintings were done in the studio, not in real light, and used as models contemplative notions of “the beautiful” as opposed to actual models. He thought that gothic churches were the last great works of art because they were made by hand, by a craftsman who was seeking to express, to personalize, his faith. Of course, there were rules you couldn’t break except when you were carving gargoyles and such. You had to carve the Madonna within the tradition, for example. But Ruskin thought even these radiated the personality of the artist and his or her contact with the vibrancy of the real world. It was an individual vision. Pound, too, found it in San Zeno in Verona, with the signed capital where the artist carved in pride “I made this.” Even in prehistory, its always the handprint, whether in the Neanderthal caves of France and the Canyon de Chelly, where the artist seems to assert his or her own existence. Yet, in “Post-Modern Art” the intention seems towards an effort at erasing all traces of the individual through these cut-ups, chance operations, or the hunting down of the “folly of intention.”
AW: When Reed Bye and I saw the cave paintings at Font de Gaum in Le Eyzies we both felt the “hand” of the poet. And yet there was no meeting that individual who is eased, muted in time. So only the product of his/her exquisite muscle and heart and eye survives. It’s sublime, authentic, unquestionably so, and in the cleanest sense. This “viewing” was a religious experience you might say. I felt something vibrating there-hand in motion, scoring lines which delineate the untamed beast in motion. We name it Cro-Magnon. Great art is “nowness” for lack of a better way to say it. This experience brought up an imagined reality of that past-hundreds of thousands of years ago. The paintings carry high talk and text and image with them which exists in fact because we have imagination. If we didn’t see them what are they? They are secret teaching. They wait for us. And we were ready, or are we? It depends. We don’t know what to do with our inheritances sometimes. Which is why ongoing wisdom traditions understand how to interpret and receive and preserve teaching. The images from the caves are like the Tibetan buddhist “terma,” or found treasures. They are hieroglyphs, seed-syllables that unlock insight. Ruskin had a point of course, Pound too. You want the real thing, not the artifice, although artifice is an interesting style when combined with intellect and humor. Not by rote, endless stock similes. The real thing is a “luminous detail,” like the rune or seed-syllable.
RR: What is the relationship of dreams and unconsciousness to your life and work?
AW: The relationship is active and useful, always. I pay attention to the messages, images, to synchronicity, auspicious coincidence, to the conjuries emanating from the unconscious — resonances, bizarre associations, etc. I had a dream recently entitled “Uncle Vanya” in which Allen Ginsberg and I were leaders of a large touring company that had settled into a western movie set. We were about to perform the play. I later re-read the Chekhov and realized there were a lot of interesting male figures in the play that shed light on my relationship to Allen, which is an intense and active one in my life. I’ll try to write about it. “Interstices of Waves” came into a recent dream — I used it in the poem “Speak Gently In Her Bardo”.
RR: Is there a difference in your work between common speech and poetic language?
AW: Often. I like to play with both. “Dialogue At Nine Thousand Feet” works in an elevated language, inspired, in part, by the altitude I was living at at the time. I’m working common speech into the many sections of “IOVIS OMNIA PLENA” — overheard conversations and the like. I have an ear for what people say — my 10-year-old and his friends talking about video games and basketball is just one example. But archness, artifice in speech excites me as well. Poetic language, perhaps. I don’t work so much with the meaning or message but the tone and carriage of the wrods. Say it “slant” advised Emily Dickinson.
RR: What is your primary method of composition — typewriter/ notepad (handwrit/typewrit)?
AW: All of the above — handwritten in notebooks of all sizes, one yellow lined pads, on manual typewriters, now on computer.
RR: Do you find a difference in the finished work depending on its compositional situation/form? Where does editting/rewriting fit into your compositions?
AW: Yes, there’s a difference in shape with the different size notepads and notebooks. Lately I’m training myself with the long poem (“IOVIS”) to work on the computer. I edit on a print-out.
RR: Do you vary when you write prose or poetry?
AW: Prose is more natural on the computer. I like the simple white page in the old machine, however. That’s where I’m still most comfortable. A hard but sweet habit to break.
RR: Will and Ariel Durant in their epic History of Civilization claim that poetry evolved out of the religious need for chants and hymns and that prose arose from the needs of merchants — i.e., that poetry derived from the imaginative faculties of the human psyche and that prose from the need for a more or less factual representation. As someone who’s written in both prose and poetry, do you see any difference in the way each is used?
AW: Yes, I see this to some extent. Poetry operates frequently along a spiritual trajectory — a need to join heaven and earth — to “connect.” But prose is telling stories — hagiographics — epics of creation and who begat whom begat who. Some native peoples see stories in the flames of a “campfire” — phantastic images of birth and death. Factual representation, of course, and the need for accounting come into this. This is also a human endeavor and very necessary. Those wonderful chapters on whaling data in Moby Dick….
RR: The Durants follow the above line of thought to the point where they see poetry as coming from the beginnings of civilization where the imaginative powers and needs overcome (or arose from) an inability to understand the world cognitively (or factually). For them it follows that prose is the mark of a fully developed culture whereas poetry comes more from the beginnings of a civilization.
AW: One is always writing the “first poem.” Each time for me personally is regenerative. We are perhaps at the end of a civilization, and yet I’m always writing the first poem. How do you explain this? A fully developed culture needs to record itself — it’s an intelligent survivalist move. I still dont’ the world “factually” in spite of the magnificent data, and so I’m stuck with poetry. They need to exist simultaneously. We are now never more “fully developed,” yet coming apart drastically and dramatically at this very instant.
RR: Lew Welch described the New York poetry scene in the 50′s and 60′s as “fierce” and the S.F. scene as “cool jazz.” As you travel around the country do you get a geographical sense of the various poetry scenes? Do you think that there’s a geographical influence on poets — for example, city versus rural, west coast versus east coast, etc.?
AW: Poets are more peripatetic these days, so many have lived on both coasts and in both city and rural settings. And are more commonly found by magazines, correspondence, tape cassettes. But friends in Bolinas and Kitkitdizze (Gary Snyder’s area) are much ore cognizant of basics — where their energy comes from, etc. They are more ecology-minded than their city cousins who are often careless, negligent and not as frugal. This comes in thematically into some of the writing. NYC is still “fierce” but for different reasons than Welch intended back then. It’s dangerous now. Depressing that our government is so outrageously corrupt and greedy — the poor get poorer, more crack babies all the time, the suffering amongst the homeless, the minorities — is endemic. It’s quite a tangle when you look at the urban scene. Where to place the blame. A lot of poets ignore these realities. Some escape to safer waters. Every city and town I’ve traveled to has an interesting subtext of some kind. An alternative.
RR: Are there any poems you’ve written that you won’t read in public, which you’d rather people would read in private, alone?
AW: “Both Other Self Neither”. Parts of “Iovis”.
RR: Do you ever utilize tone of voice to suggest ironies, etc. in your writings? How does this translate on the written page?
AW: In a piece entitled “Coup de Grace” I seem to be working with a distinctly ironic tone. It’s an accusatory tone, and yet the language travels in myriad directions. I think this piece is most successful on the page. It’s steady and doesn’t strain. With other pieces my reading style may color or change the words. Perhaps the pieces are not as fixed.
RR: Some of your poems, “Battery” for example, read quite softer than how they’re performed. Do you think you may be trapped into a certain performing style that subverts the poems themselves?
AW: Sometimes that’s true. I’m pushing too hard, not letting the poem breathe. Perhaps it comes from frequent readings to larger audiences where I wonder can they hear me in the back?
RR: Sometimes your poems don’t seem to progress forward as much as circle an idea or concept. But as you’re writing do you feel the poem moves forward, do you discover things as you write the poem that you didn’t know before?
AW: I usually feel I’m propelling forward, and yet aspects of the poem spiral back in and continue around. Discovery is the reward of the curiosity. I never know where I’m going, but I’m not interested particularly that the poem climax to a revelation at the end. The making of it, existing inside teh poem as it occurs (and as it re-occurs) is the point.
RR: Aristotle, Robert Frost and Marianne Moore said that the ability to make associations was the hallmark of a poet. Pound, George Grosz (the artist) and Marianne Moore suggested endless curiosity. What do you think are the abilities that create a great poet?
AW: Both a resonating mind plus vast curiosity I agree. Also quick and clear eyes, a good ear. Imagination. I would not be a very good poet, I think, without passion.
RR: Yet sometimes it seems the energy in your poems moves from thought as opposed to feeling.
AW: Yes. “I Digress…” is a good example. Most of my so-called meditative poems work that way, and yet it is an emotional thinking. There’s passion in it.
RR: How much of your work is “first thought”?
AW: The root, the initial and sustaining “hit” is the first thought. The tinkering that comes later never feels major.
RR: Nabokov said that “Writing is rewriting.” The argument against “First thought, best thought” could conceivably run like this: When the writing is initiated there is the primary experience of the poem or language. The writer at a later date rereads the poem from a fresh, more detached, distant perspective. This fresh mind is the mind of a new person, essentially, NOT the person who wrote the original “work”. And rewriting is, or can be, Re-writing — as intuitive, inspired and fresh as the original writing. As Corso reportedly told Kerouac, “I don’t want to ignore any part of my mind — including the part which cringes when I reread something I’ve written and knows how to improve it.”
RR: I’ve been reading the mathematician L.E.J. Brouwer lately who wrote a book in 1905 called Life, Art and Mysticism. He talks about that limitlessness, that radiance as well. It’s kind of difficult to summarize but he said that we began in isolation amongst nature without any concept of future. But when we began thinking the rational mind created a seemingly continuous world different from our actual experience of it — which is more like discrete moments interspersed with emptiness. One begins to dismantle this “world of causality and then to remain free, only then obtaining a definite Direction which it will follow freely, reversibly. The phenomena succeed each other in time, bound by causality because your coloured view wants this regularlity, but right through the walls of causality “miracles” glide and flow continually, visible only to the free, the enlightened…. Intellect has made him forfeit the staggering independence and directness of each of his rambling images by connecting them to each other…. For example [the statement] ‘The structure of nature is so infinitely subtle and complex that your intellect will never fully grasp it and so you will never find there the stability you aim for.’ For those who relinquish the intellect, however, the world is anything but subtle or complex: it is immediately clear: it appears subtle only to the intellect that struggles laboriously and sees no end to its struggle…. Look at this world, full of wretched people, who imagine that they have possessions, afraid they might lose them, always hopefully toiling in an effort to acquire more…. Only he who recognizes that he has nothing, that he cannot possess anything, that absolute certainty is unattainable, who completely resigns himself and sacrifices all, who does not know anything, does not want anything and does not want to know anything, who abandons and neglects everything, he will receive all; to him the world of freedom opens, the world of painless contemplation and of — nothing.”
AW: Brouwer sounds very Buddhist in what you just quoted. There is no goal. We are all “gonna die.” The practices and “concepts” in Buddhism are just stepping stones toward nothing. “Nothing” means that you don’t need to be grasping and territorial and self-perpetuating. There is no “self,” which is a very heretical notion. When you go to look for a solid self, a soul, something made of DNA, recognizable, this big “me” that will carry your identity for ever and ever, you can’t find it. And yet you are colorful, individual, only you will write that particular poem, only you manifest a very wonderful and particular vivid energy. Or you can be dark and wrathful, a terrorist. Only you suffer what you suffer. But you are still going to die and you can’t anything with you. You consciousness might return, some people experience that possibility, but you won’t ever be Randy Roark again. And I won’t be Anne Waldman. I find this “view” a tremendous relief. And it makes you feel more compassion towards other lifeforms as well. So perhaps a bit of your art remains that might encourage someone else. Great. You want to live to experience your own immortality? You want to imagine that? Is that the point of it all? I doubl it.
RR: The Moslem philosopher Avicenna claimed that the highest understanding, say spiritual love of God, is unavailable to all but the highest minds, so parables, such as stories of a physical paradise and bodily immortality, are to be used for the masses while the other purer knowledge is to be used with only the most advanced students. Do you ever code in language what you are afraid may be misunderstood?
AW: I’m working around many aspects, the public poetry being an important one. I’m not sure about the “coding.” Poetry is always a kind of code. My Tantric studies come into the work constantly. When it does, is it accessible? You tell me.
RR: Since I first heard of Keats idea of “negative capability” I’ve collected some notes on it. For instance, a diagnostic symptom of mental illness is “all-or-nothing” thinking where a person can’t contain contradictory ideas about a person, incident, or object — “I hate my mother and I love my mother” — instead it always has to be either “My mother is the devil” or “My mother is an angel.” This seems a corollary to Keats’s idea — “the ability to keep in mind contradictory ideas without an irritable searching after facts.” One also thinks of F. Scott Fitzgerald (“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”). Both Aristotle’s and Einstein’s definition of genius was “the ability to contain contradiction.” Whitman, of course: “Do I contradict myself? Very well! I am large, I contain multitudes.” But how precisely does this affect any concept of poetry or the poetic act?
AW: My friend and poet Andrew Schelling puts it well: “A poem is a mind that holds contraries.”
RR: Is esoteric Buddhism a key in deciphering some of your more intellectually complex poems? For example in the Vajradhatu Sun, a Buddhist publication, the reviewer writes of “Romance” that “‘She’ is wisdom abandoned and therefore found.” That seems unnecessarily obscure to me.
AW: Yes, it’s important to watch “buzzwords” or buzz-concepts. But, for example, to appreciate a poem, such as “I Digress …” it would be useful to know something about the Abhidharma, the Abhidharma in Buddhist philosophy.
RR: Yet when I first heard you read “I Digress …” I didn’t have the slightest idea it had anything to do with Abidharma. I still don’t know what Abidharma means. But I think it’s one of the most rigorous, uncompromisingly intelligent poems I’ve ever heard. Are you telling me any affection I have for the poem is mistaken?
AW: Not at all. But you might get interested in Abhidharma and that could further your appreciation of the poem. Abhidharma notices how the mind moves through “heaps” of experience which are at some point illusory. It’s a very precise description. It’s a footnote to the poem. You are an ideal, attentive reader. You “get” as much as you need and more. You love poetry, you love to crack the code. You are a serious student of Pound. How do you read the Cantos? Do you want the notes? Do they enhance the poem for you?
RR: It’s funny but I think of them as totally different activities. Reading Kenner on Pound makes me realize I don’t know what I don’t know. I assume I have all the information needed to read a poem. If it’s in English and I don’t understand it I think it’s because it doesn’t make sense rather than that I can’t make sense of it. But in the Cantos and in some of your work I bump against Greek or Sanskrit or Chinese and I know I’m missing something-there’s a big skip in the poem, I lose the continuity. Pound said that when you come across something you don’t understand in the Cantos, something in a foreign language for instance, don’t worry because it’ll be repeated in a form you do understand nearby. I think he’s wrong about that, but it doesn’t matter. What’s interesting is if a poem interests you enough you find out about it. With the Cantos or with Joyce or Pynchon or Eliot there’s plenty of secondary texts to expose the underpinnings of the work. Your situation is a little different in two ways: One is that you share your vocabulary with a select group of Buddhist practitioners and, two, there isn’t any significant secondary material. But what I like about poems I don’t totally understand is that you don’t have to believe it or argue with it because you’re interested in how the poet’s mind is working. You see the connections made in the poet’s head and you also begin to see the movement of electricity through the poet’s mind, even though you might arrange the energy in a different pattern. It’s Pound’s “rose in the steel dust.” And so I find in my scholarship a freedom, a loosening of my sense of self into a concept of time where I’m an insignificant speck totally circumscribed by my times. I know you as a scholar as well and wonder if you find inspiration in your studies. What exactly do you find yourself drawn to in your studies?
AW: I am drawn to the passion that manifests in other cultures’ ritual and oral traditions, to a study of how mind articulates its states of ecstasy and exploration. How art stretches the boundaries of logic. I’m interested in “ulatbamsi” — the “upsidedown language” you find in Kabir and in Tantric Buddhism. I am interested in how and where the synapse occurs that transmits through juxtaposition of semantics and sound. I listen to a lot of ethnic music which carries those messages. I am also a student of my own time and place which is circumscribed by poetry, and I work to forge a poetics which is close to my mind-grammar and body-mind vibration.
RR: The poet Basil Bunting, friend of Pound, wrote “Pens are too light/take a chisel to write.” Pound himself said that the most important tool for the writer was a very large garbage can. There’s the story of Allen Ginsberg’s mid-60′s reading in London with Bunting in the audience. Allen wanted to read his best work for Bunting so he read “Howl”, “Kaddish”, “Sunflower Sutra” — all his “greatest hits.” Afterwards he and Bunting were riding in a taxi and Allen was nervous because Bunting had said nothing about the reading. Finally Allen couldn’t take it any more and asked Bunting what he had thought of the reading. And Bunting said, “Too many words.” The traditions of compression in writing and more expansive works seem at odds. Who do you think sympathize with — writers who chisel at words or those who open a vein?
AW: Both. Both. I appreciate “condensare.” I return to Dickinson, Niedecker, Creeley with awe and inspiration. I love the succinct angular tension of Chinese and Japanese poetries. I myself tend to be more verbose, probably on the side of “too many words.” Not A Male Pseudonym is somewhere between the two. I need the lyricism extra syllables provide. I work with song, and need to manifest and explicate contradictory psychological states. Olson “opens a vein,” Robert Duncan, too. Does there have to be a choice?
RR:. How can you tell the difference between an acceptance of “both” which is a weakness, an inability to choose or an inability to take a stand, and some real understanding? Kerouac said “Until you assert yourself nothing ever happens to you.” In my own life it seems the real breakthroughs have happened when someone’s pushed me uncompromisingly until some raw primal energy came out screaming “I am!”
AW: I recognize that push too. But I’m talking about negative capability. I don’t feel compromised by my personal range. Heaven forbid I ever “find my own voice.” I’m not really searching, you know. Embarrassing. Creeley and Ginsberg can co-exist. I’ve always been excessive. I assert myself all the time. There’s no particular problem with that.
RR: You know, one of the things I’ve learned about you through this interview is you don’t intimidate easily. When you’re challenged you rise to the challenge. In fact, you even seek out the challenge. I think that may be a contributing factor to explain why you’ve been so successful.
AW: Thank you for the compliment. It’s enjoyable to talk about poetry. I’m always amazed that people aren’t more inquisitive, aren’t asking specific questions about particular poems. Poetry works out of ordinary mind as well as sacred speech and sound. It can be discussed. As a reader of poetry one wants the company of other readers as well. That’s one of the reasons we started a poetics school.
RR: Why have you chosen to incorporate non-verbal aspects such as video, music, dance, etc. into the performance of your poetry?
AW: I am interested in the contrast the non-verbal aspects provide in relation to the words — to the poetry. I enjoy collaboration. I learn a lot about color, body, non-syntactical form.
RR: Your poetry is very direct to the subject matter — whether it be a “take” on a political subject or an interior experience. Is this a conscious choice away from subtlety? Is there any sense of the personal, the private in your work as opposed to “the public.”
AW: Yes, certainly. I seem to be working in both directions, always, simultaneously. The “takes” feel necessary on current issues. It’s a way to understand where my mind is, relative to outside challenge, insanity (the war in the middle east), and how to empower myself in the miasma where one could otherwise dissolve into total chaos and despair. I can create a spell that says “I’ll make your semen dry up/Your genitalia will wither in the wind!” addressed to the “men of war,” the arbiters of our industrial-military-mafialike complex, and actually feel its potential efficacy. Other works such as “Science Times”, “Both Self Either Neither” are subtler, for the page primarily. “Pseudonym” is more private.
RR: There seems to be no negative capability in your political stand. You seem to feel a need for eternal vigilance because you see the government as a Machiavellian and almost demonic force, especially the U.S. government, which is out to destroy you and everything you believe in. But it seems to me your shrillness and inability to draw political distinctions makes you, politically at least, marginal and ineffectual. What is your feeling about political poems in general? For instance, I can’t imagine an overtly political Frank O’Hara poem.
AW: What, no capability in my political stand? How provocative of you! I disagree. True, I find the government-and most governments, not just ours-demonic. They are so rarely motivated, it would seem, by compassion, but rather by greed. The Scandinavian governments are perhaps an exception, and more humane, more involved with the welfare-the health-of their citizens. They seem wiser in matters concerning the environment, for example. What are the distinctions? Keep a sense of humor, see the inanity of some of our political figures, but don’t be naïve about how their decisions are affecting our reality and survival. The war in the Middle East was cruel, misguided. In spite of what a monster Saddam Hussein is, there’s a lot of blood on “our” hands. I can’t helping being shrill at times, although the song I wrote, “Tormento del Desierto,” about Operation Desert Storm is slow, sedate, almost dirge-like. I often appreciate the sentiments, the passion of a political poem but it has to work on outside levels as well — Amiri Baraka’s political poems shine in their vocal power, in their complex and engaged rhythms. You might not even agree with him on the semantic level. Frank O’Hara’s poems are humanly political. The consciousness of the persona he conjures is awake. He’s a good citizen.
RR: Many have said that an author’s works are their autobiography. I’m familiar with much of your work but very little of it is self-revealing, although this does not mean that it’s non-autobiographical. But am I wrong in thinking that there appears to be much more of the artist creating a work in your poetry as opposed to the artist leading the reader into an experience?
AW: Perhaps. Perhaps there is no “self” ultimately to be revealed. The “I” exists in so much as “other” and vivid phenomena exist. I don’t think you mean “confessional,” do you?
RR: I don’t know.
AW: I write to make up the world, it’s true. I live inside that “world” or universe. You’re welcome to come in as well. But it’s not all artifice either. I want you to get inside my eyes and heart.
RR: Kerouac said in Visions of Cody that “I am writing this because we’re all going to die.” Do you have a conscious, underlying reason that you write, a purpose to your writing? Is it only to make up a world?
AW: I feel close to Kerouac’s sentiment. “I’m here to disappear” I’ve said. The writing confirms the fragility and unbearable beauty of our existence. Its purpose isn’t immortality. It’s more complex and interesting than that. It’s discovering life at the edge of death, all the time.
RR: In ancient Greece the four arts (lyric poetry, song, instrumental music, and dance) were one art. It wasn’t until later that they became separate. It seems as if you’re trying to put the pieces back together.
AW: Yes, often I want to bring the pieces back into a comprehensive whole again so the efficacy, or whatever “good” or insight or energy comes through the work, can travel further into human psycho-physical streams so that the poetry has more of a “pulse.” I find music expands my own mental capacity. It triggers associations and imprints on me in a visceral way. Dance gesture is necessary to any ingesting of any knowledge or wisdom. And its rituals are exonerating. My inspiration comes out of a natural inclination to push boundaries which I deem artificial in the first place. The directions continue to be interesting. Sometimes in writing workshops I’ve encouraged a collaborative choral form, where everyone is contributing words, music, song, gesture, movement. Many directions. At the moment of performance, all arts are the same.
RR: Plato’s Academy was more or less a religious fraternity dedicated to the muses. Is there any feeling at Naropa of a religious or spiritual foundation, a concept of fraternity, or a dedication to something “other”?
AW: Well the “other” is not an external “other.” We honor our own innate wisdom and poetry at Naropa. That’s the purpose of bowing together to one another’s best effort, aspiration. There is a wonderful sense of comraderie based on the underlying understanding of go — that it ultimately “doesn’t work.” So there’s a lot of chaos and groundlessness as we say, but there’s also a great deal of an abundance, generosity, commitment. Naropa definitely presents an alternative to most educational institutions. The school really falls much more within the Shambhala tradition. Although it has the accomodation of Buddhist background it is a secular school interested in other traditions and points of view. It certainly acknowledges the outrageous “outrider” tradition in American poetry and poetics.
RR: One of my primary experiences in meditation is a state of mind which is virtually wordless. This experience must somewhat resemble a child’s experience when s/he has not yet begun to place names on objects, to literalize their experience and then experience this literalization as their primary “experience”. Does your experience of meditation affect not only your relationship to your mind (as preword) and its reaction with your “experience” but also your reentry in the land of words in your writing?
AW: I would say the experience you describe is sometimes accurate. But often when I meditate I am not in that “wordless” state at all. My projecting mind is racing with all kinds of thoughts that also are labeled “words.” I’ve learned about “gap” through meditation and also directly experienced “negative capability.” Sometimes the oral work develops as sound first, before word, concept, then the latter kicks in. But meditation makes you stop what you are doing. This is an interesting contrast to the rest of my daily life. “I” is not so reliable. Who is thinking, watching, etc? These are always interesting questions.
RR: St. Francis of Assisi said, “Who we are looking for is who is looking.”
AW: That’s the first step. Finding the “watcher.” But you can get beyond that. The watcher isn’t always so interesting.
RR: Actually, I think it’s very interesting. I think if you begin to examine “the watcher,” as you call him, there’s an interesting moment when you realize that if you’re observing the watcher, then who’s doing that? And if you can observe yourself observing the observer it begins to get very interesting. From that point it was clear that reality seemed to change as my perception of it changed, and my perceptions were disturbed by these weird filters. I keep trying to get out from behind these filters. So the question is, Who is this “I” I’m trying to get out from behind these filters? I see similarities to Pound’s point of the vortex or the point connecting Yeats’s two gyres where the maximum energy is. It’s the point of pure energy without manifestation. And I think it’s the point where words come through although I don’t know where they come from because that point has no depth, it doesn’t contain anything as far as I can tell. I don’t know what it is, really, because it’s not a thing. I can never really back it up against a wall. In fact, isn’t that where you observe our thoughts in meditation? Isn’t there a total identification with emptiness at that moment, the moment you, say, witness an attachment or observe your thoughts from the point of view of the “who” who is looking?
AW: That’s the point in meditation, and the watcher dissolves. It’s just experience at that point. No reference point back to the solid. “I.” As a writer that can be exciting because of the groundlessness. You are free to explore other states of mind, states of being. You can get inside the language. Down with the narrative, the autobiography, the “self,” the dull ownership of experience, tired emotion, semantics. Cut-up eliminates the “watcher” to some extent or it gets fractured, multi-headed, a more curious beast. But the organizer is still on the job.
RR: In many ways, words themselves continue to exist when the object they refer to no longer do. For example, William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow probably no longer exists outside the poem itself. Plato suggests that words (ideas, abstractions) are the only eternals — that all the wheelbarrows in the world will cease to exist whereas the word “wheelbarrow” will continue to connote an idea even after all the wheelbarrows eventually disappear. This seems in contrast to WCW’s statement “No ideas but in things.” But it seems contradictory since there aren’t any objects in that statement. How do you see this very basic argument? Is it important in any way to you?
AW: Do you know Jack Spicer’s letter to Garcia Lorca where he says “I would like to make poems out of real objects” and “the imagination pictures the real”? He speaks of how the lemon he shellacs to the canvas will decay, develop a mold, become garbage. “Yes, but the garbage of the real still reaches out into the current world making its objects, in turn, visible — lemon calls to lemon, newspaper to newspaper, boy to boy. As things decay they bring their equivalents into being.” “Things do not connect: they correspond” he says. “No ideas but in things” does not say “no ideas,” so there’s a philosophical argument here. Words are things, however, as Gertrude Stein reminds us. The dialogue is always shifting in my head. My poetics is open, expansive. Words are very much things to me, personally, whatever they evoke semantically. But they carry communication, if you will, on many levels. I am not interested in a fixed position vis a vis words. Never.
RR: There seems to be a very definite line between poets who conceive of poetry as primarily language — the sound, the juxtaposition of words, the visual impact of the letters themselves where the meaning is secondary or contained in those qualities of sound, etc. or even non-existent — and those who think of poetry as primarily communication. Where do you fit in this dialogue?
AW: Probably with the former, in these sense of how I practice the art. Message poetry can be most tedious. You might communicate better by telephone, by an embrace, by sending your money to a worthy cause. But poetry will always communicate something however it’s “done.” It might be more complex than some people are used to. My poetry communicates my mind, my nervous system which rages with passion whatever the words “say.”
RR: The idea of relativity of experience came into disfavor as early as mid-period Greece. The position taken was that if all experience was relative than a sleeper’s, a drunken person’s or a maniac’s vision of reality would be as true as anyone else’s. They came to believe there must be an objective truth and so the question became is there a road or path to it?
AW: The relative and the absolute, sure. But the absolute, in a way, is beyond anyone’s version and description. In a way it is our own mind using the simile of the mirror, which simply reflects things as they come up with no attitude.
RR: In their History of Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant point out that the earliest dated printed language was the Diamond Sutra. In Sumer, the oldest western civilization which has left a record, archeologists have uncovered “shattered tablets (which) contain dirges of no mean power, and of significant literary form. Here at the outset appears the characteristic Near-Eastern trick of chanting repetition — many lines beginning in the same way, many clauses reiterating or illustrating the meaning of the clause before. Through these salvaged relics we see the religious origin of literature in the songs and lamentations of the priests. The first poems were not madrigals, but prayers.”
AW: This feels right. Prayers are a a yearning for confirmation. Their efficacy makes the world keep spinning, from some point of view.
RR: It has been said that during the Golden Age, arguably the height of Roman culture (circa 30 A.D.), poets ceased to mingle with people and of even speaking their language. (One thinks of a statement from Patricia Hempl’s review of Makeup on Empty Space: “The famous ‘difficulty’ of contemporary poetry is here, the surface angularity that confines poetry to a skimpy audience.”) Artificial (Greek) forms had become the model for poetry. Horace’s “profane crowd” preferred satires and “lower forms” of art, such as bar songs. This atmosphere co-existed with (or perhaps created) a ribald underculture which included, before his eventual banishment, Ovid. Ovid and his crowd (the poete maudits) set themselves up explictly in opposition to what they saw as the “piety” of Virgil and his imitators. Petrified versus lively; polite versus profane. Is this a continual flux? Do you find similar drives in your own “career”? Where do you fit in with “the profane crowd”?
AW: I take Virgil’s line “Iovis Omnia Plena” (All is full of Jove) as a title, and the joke is that it’s Jove’s sperm it’s full of. I tell the senators their semen will dry up, I write love poems to women, I scream “Mega Mega Mega death bomb — enlighten” while demonstrating at Rocky Flats. But some of the longer more meditative pieces sound more “polite,” and contained, perhaps, although ther’s a radical thinking going on inside them.
RR: What’s the longest period of time you have gone without writing a poem? Do you get a feeling of restlessness when you’re not producing?
AW: I’m crazy when I’m not writing. I’m sick. I have no purpose in life. Something like that.